Incubating “Cool” in Indianapolis

On my recent – rather hurried – drive across the country, I allotted myself one day to stop, rest, and check things out. I decided to do it in Indianapolis, IN.

Why Indianapolis, you ask?

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Because I had no idea what was there, but I suspected there might be something interesting going on. My friends Carrie and David had moved there a few years ago and seemed pretty darn happy. The couple met while living in LA – in Silver Lake, to be exact, a handful of years before Silver Lake was THE place for young alternative folks to live. Beautiful, witty, and intelligent individuals both, Carrie and David bewildered their SoCal pals (and me) when they moved to the Midwest, and they haven’t wasted a whole lot of energy on trying to explain their decision. It seemed like something that would be best understood by a visit. Hence, my stop.

When I showed up, David asked, “so what do you want to see in Indianapolis?”

“Show me something cool,” I said, “You can always find something cool if you go looking for it, right?”

IMG_1105IMG_1114We started by exploring Broad Ripple, an Indianapolis neighborhood that’s a designated cultural district. The White River, the city’s main waterway, runs right along it, and a canal originally intended to facilitate trade and the movement of lumber bisects it. A rails-to-trails pathway called the Monon Trail cuts right through the neighborhood, and because we were there on a sunny Saturday, there was a steady stream of walkers, runners, and bikers taking advantage of it. Broad Ripple is definitely hip; there were record stores selling real vinyl, busy bars specializing in craft beers, a bunch of foodie hangouts, and a gourmet paleta (ice cram bar) place. According to Broad Ripple’s website (yep, they have one), they are “home to some of Indianapolis’ best-educated and most open-minded citizens.” There you have it.

IMG_1118We droveIMG_1111 down Meridian Street, which, in one sector, is home to the city’s beautifully kept, stately old mansions, and in another, home to century-old structures in a state of abandonment. Downtown Indianapolis was abuzz with basketball energy, hosting NCAA Final Four weekend and its hoards of college-sweatshirt-clad fans. The Mass Ave neighborhood on the edge of downtown showed more evidence of well-off young creatives, with its old warehouses converted to lofts and upscale eateries (This neighborhood has a website too, where they claim to be a “home for unique entrepreneurial endeavors.”)

All of that is “cool”, I suppose. But what really fascinated me were the fringe neighborhoods.

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As we left Mass Ave and headed back north, we passed blocks and blocks of big older houses – some in good condition, some boarded up. “Crack houses,” David said. “When I was a kid growing up in Southern Indiana, you wouldn’t think of coming here. But it’s turning around. Yeah, a lot of these places are a mess, but some of them – look at the architecture, the details! They’re 3500 square feet, they have a ton of character, they’re close to Mass Ave – and you can get them for $130,000. That’s what I love about this place,” he said, “you can actually afford to live here without spending all of your time chasing after money. You can devote time to something else in life.”

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I’m not sure I’ve ever made that connection so clearly before. If you live in the established bastions of hipness – San Francisco, Seattle, Brooklyn, Silver Lake – you pay the price to do so. Meaning, you need to work in a fairly traditional, economically conservative industry like medicine, finance, or law just to pay the bills. There’s not much room for creativity there, and even less room for risk. If you really want to focus on art, music, coding the next world-altering app, or just living in a way that allows more IMG_1122room for being and thinkinIMG_1124g, you can’t do it in one of these sought-after cities. If you’re really committed to living a non-traditional lifestyle in an urban area, you’ve got to find a cheap city – one that’s flying under the radar, or maybe just emerging from rough times. Like Indianapolis. “Or like Detroit,” I said to David. “No way,” he said, “it’s too late there.” Wow, too late to get in on Detroit. “Newark,” I said, “maybe that’s the place; I mean, it’s in a great location, they’re building lots of arts facilities, and I keep hearing about Jon Bon Jovi investing in it.”  A week later, when I got to my parents’ house in northern New Jersey, my mother randomly mentioned to me that the City of Newark was selling houses for under $10,000 to folks who would commit to refurbishing them and living in them full-time for three years. Of course – that’s how this evolution happens.

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Yes, you can find coolness anywhere you go looking for it. I already knew this. But what I realized while discovering Indianapolis with David is that you can create coolness too – and it’s a heck of a lot easier to have the financial and ideological freedom (not to mention the time and space) to create coolness where the living is cheap.

The real incubation zones aren’t on your radar – that’s the whole point.

“So now you get why we live here, don’t you?” David asked. Yes, I certainly do. And it’s changed my perspective about where to poke around next.

That’s why I explore.

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